Climate Activists Eye Colorado for Next Divestment Battleground
The recently-formed activist group “Stop the Money Pipeline” used Earth Day to bring its launch a campaign to to bring the divestment fight to Colorado and spread the word about efforts to pressure financial institutions to stop doing business with fossil fuel companies. Though the web-based events lacked the turnout of traditional protests, they signaled continued commitment to pushing colleges, banks, financial institutions and city and state governments to divest.
As coronavirus fears pushed Earth Day events online, several activist groups took the opportunity to host live video chats and webinars focusing on ending fossil fuel financing in Colorado and imploring the state’s public pension fund to rid itself of all investments within the sector.
“The key concept is realizing that your money does more than just sit in the bank,” said Julia Williams, communications coordinator of 350 Colorado.
As part of the Earth Day Live video streaming series, local representatives of the “Stop the Money Pipeline” initiative hosted a town hall livestream that focused on state-specific impacts of their broader, national campaign.
The campaign itself launched late last year as an outgrowth of the divestment movement. The coalition is looking to convince large institutional investors, banks and insurers not to fund “climate destruction” through loans, investment and financing in fossil fuel projects and companies. Key targets include JPMorgan, BlackRock and Liberty Mutual, all of which were called out in a recent report, “Banking on Climate Change” that identified the firms who put the most money into the fossil fuel sector. Organizers are alums of well-known activist groups like 350.org–the same group that helped launch the divestment movement nearly a decade ago.
Williams explained that banks like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Citibank had invested more than $130 billion in Colorado energy development over the past four years. To the activists, any sort of investment in fossil fuels is part of an oppressive, exploitative system that abuses both people and the earth.
The Stop the Money Pipeline activists hope that, given sufficient pressure, major banks and insurance companies will stop doing business with energy and pipeline companies. However, with much of the country under stay-home orders, traditional forms of protests and demonstrations have become impossible. Instead, the activists tried to provide their allies new ways to support the cause on social media. These included calling the offices of the three targeted financial institutions: BlackRock, JP Morgan Chase, and Liberty Mutual–to divest from all fossil fuel investments.
“If these same companies would just recognize that these companies were bad investments, they could simply stop new coal power plants, coal mines, and oil wells by not investing,” said Lauer.
Another webinar revealed the behind the scenes dealings 350.org and other activist groups had undertaken to coerce the Public Employees Retirement Association of Colorado (PERA) divest from fossil fuels. Currently PERA has maintained a stance in opposition to divestment, citing its fiduciary duty, but has said it would adhere to legislation that mandated the policy.
The divestment movement has targeted several of the largest pension funds in the U.S., including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the New York State Common Retirement Fund, but so far to no avail. In 2017, CalPERS unanimously voted to curtail its divestment policy. The new rule states that “[d]ivesting appears to almost invariably harm investment performance” and calls it an “ineffective strategy for achieving social or political goals.” The pension board has since maintained that stance. In New York, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who has ultimate say on the matter, has staunchly opposed legislative attempts to force his hand.
The divestment movement itself traces its origins to college campuses, where students initially pushed for administrators to divest their respective endowments from the fossil fuel sector. So far, most major Colorado universities have rejected similar proposals.
Last session, State Rep. Emily Sirota sponsored a bill that would have mandated PERA to conduct a study assessing the climate risk of its investment portfolio. The bill was defeated by a 10-1 vote and did not advance out of committee.
During the “Organize for Climate-Safe Pensions” webinar, 350 Colorado’s Bobbie Mooney talked about how the group worked with Rep. Sirota to bring the initial PERA bill forward. She then outlined the legislative strategy 350 Colorado and Rep. Sirota were considering for the 2020 session to push for a more hard-hitting divestment bill.
“[W]orking with State Rep. Emily Sirota, we were focused on originally a bill that would mandate PERA divest from coal just focusing on coal to begin with, but Rep. Sirota was more interested in divesting from all fossil fuels, which is awesome,” Mooney said. “And then we even tossed around the idea of running two bills this year, one just focused on coal, and one on all fossil fuels. The idea being that maybe with two bills on the plate that at least the coal bill might pass as seemingly the more moderate or middle of the road option.”
“But ultimately we coalesced around a single bill that would mandate PERA divestment from all fossil fuel investments over a five-year period with coal divestment as the first step in the next one or two years,” Mooney continued.
According to Mooney, the bill was set to be introduced in March, but was delayed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Colorado state legislature adjourned on March 14 and later indefinitely extended the break as cases continued to rise throughout the state. While leaders expect to reconvene after the State Supreme Court ruled that the session may extend beyond the initial May 6 adjournment date, Mooney does not expect the divestment bill to be a priority when the session resumes.
“But we’re definitely planning to continue the push in 2021. And beyond as needed, however long it takes because we’re really fighting for current and future retirees,” Mooney said.